Several years ago, a group of Catholic bishops asked researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to investigate a controversial question: Have the priests who committed sexual abuses predominantly been gay? After two million dollars spent on years of study, the researchers appear ready to offer a preliminary answer: No.
The Catholic Church has been wracked by repeated waves of sexual abuse scandals, beginning in 2002 within the Boston Archdiocese and rapidly involving priests and parishes across the U.S. and around the world. The abuse was remarkable not only for its pervasiveness—nearly 14,000 claims filed since 1950, according to the Church's account, with legal costs totaling in the billions—but also for the Church's apparent efforts to cover up the problem over time. When the scandal hit its peak, in 2002, the Church established a National Review Board, which in turn commissioned the John Jay study.
In particular, the Church was seeking to investigate a widely-held (yet unsupported) belief—that because the vast majority of victims in the clergy sexual abuse cases were boys, the preponderance of abusive priests were gay. The John Jay research team set out to investigate this matter by reviewing the abuse reports filed since 1950. Their complete research will not be available until next year, but researchers reported this week to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that their results so far show no sign of gay culpability. "At this point," researcher Margaret Smith told the Conference, "we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and the increased likelihood of subsequent abuse from the data that we have right now."
In their preliminary report, the researchers make a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual predation—as Smith told the bishops, "What we are suggesting is that the idea of sexual identity be separated from the problem of sexual abuse." In particular, Karen Terry, one of the researchers, emphasized the importance of looking at whom the sexual predator would have been able to access when seeking a victim#8212;thus making a distinction between sexual identity and predatory behavior. And, when asked if a gay man's sexual identity should be considered when evaluating him for the priesthood, Smith said, "If that exclusion were based on the fact that that person would be more probable than any other candidate to abuse, we do not find that at this time."
Since 2005, the Vatican has held that men with "deep-seated" attractions to other men should not be permitted to enter the clergy. While that policy may well not change in light of the bishops' research, perhaps the old slander against gay men as priests can begin to be put to rest.